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The best of the best?

Sports | The Heisman Trophy, college football's top prize, is awarded on mysterious terms with no clear definition of what it represents

Issue: "Narnia unleashed," Dec. 10, 2005

In one quick week, the Heisman trophy race went from too close to call to a one-man race. If analysts, straw polls, and pundits are to be trusted, USC running back Reggie Bush sealed the deal with his heroic effort against Fresno State on Nov. 19. Any doubt that remained was supposedly erased by Texas quarterback Vince Young's poor performance against rival Texas A&M on Nov. 25. Of course, results from Heisman balloting won't be revealed until Dec. 10 during a televised special.

What will Reggie Bush-or Mr. Young, or whomever-have won when he takes hold of the famous bronze statue at the Downtown Athletic Club? It's not clear.

That's because the Heisman trophy, which is awarded on mysterious terms, has no clear definition of what it's being awarded for. The ballot instructs the 923 voters-made up of anonymous media members, former winners, and one fan ballot-to choose the "outstanding" player of the season.

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Since 1935, few specifics have been fleshed out, outside of the fact that all but one of the winners was an offensive player, usually a running back or quarterback. Are voters looking for the most valuable college football player or the best player on one of the best teams or the athlete with the most professional potential? Voters can and do disagree.

But who are the voters? The media selectors are supposed to be anonymous, but many sportswriters wear their Heisman ballot like a badge of honor. Some websites chronicle the entire list. Most are working journalists, but some are retired or have moved on to other careers. "Many of the voters are only borderline qualified," well-connected Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist and Heisman voter Wendell Barnhouse told the Los Angeles Times. "And some of them are idiots."

As Times columnist Bill Plaschke says, "This voting pool cannot simply be swayed, it must be shocked and awed." But with standards and voters so poorly defined, what in the name of Gino Torretta is the Heisman trophy worth anyway?

How they vote

The 923 Heisman trophy voters are given nearly no guidance about what to base their Heisman votes on. In fact, the ballot simply describes it as "The HEISMAN MEMORIAL TROPHY awarded to the Outstanding College Football Player of the United States for 2005." Along the way, some of the voters have revealed their methodology for forming their Heisman ballot. Here are thoughts from five voters:

•"The Heisman is not an MVP award. Otherwise, only the best player on one of the nation's two or three best teams would qualify." -Kevin Sherrington, Dallas Morning News

•"My definition of outstanding is slightly different than Funk & Wagnall's. To me, it's a certain something that sets a player apart from everybody else on the field-an electricity that compels us to edge closer to the TV (or focus our stadium binoculars) the moment the huddle breaks." -John McGrath, Tacoma News Tribune

•"This is not an MVP or best player on the best team award. Yes, the statistical nature of the world means offensive linemen or defenders rarely are going to be among the top vote-getters. That's just the way it is." -Erick Smith, USA Today

•"To me, at least, it came down to a quarterback who touched the ball every play and had a marvelous season for a team that will play for the national championship vs. a wide receiver who got 7.25 touches a game and had a marvelous season for a team that's headed to the Continental Tire Bowl." -Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (explaining his rationale for choosing Oklahoma quarterback Jason White over Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in 2003)

•"You must either play for Notre Dame or beat Notre Dame to win the Heisman." -Beano Cook, ESPN analyst.

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